by Lola Lafon & copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Today’s translation is dedicated to Linda Ramey, Gertrude Mayes, and my own Gene Nevevas, from their Violaine. “Mercy, Mary, Patty” is looking for an Anglophone publisher. Got ideas? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Today’s work is sponsored by Freespace Dance. Happy Birthday, Lulu!
From pages 218-240 (conclusion of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”)
We’re back where the novel began, in 2016, with the nameless narrator – Violaine’s prodigy as the latter was Gene Neveva’s four decades earlier — on a pilgrimage to Smith College in Northampton to find Professor Neveva and perhaps her own way as she nears 40. After a preliminary meeting in which Violaine’s name does not come up, Neveva suggests that the narrator enroll in her course – even though she normally does not accept adults as they have a predisposition for short-cuts and simple answers.
Your class is not the Sunday Mass I feared it might be, even if the fervor of the participants lends itself to confusion, the way they stampede into the room, piling into every nook and cranny, spilling over from the seats onto the stairs and hunkering down as if preparing for a siege, provisioned with sandwiches, bottled water, trail mix. The very first day you warn us: We’ll emerge from your course neither swept away nor converted, you insist, above all not converted.
The weeks glide by and slip away and I don’t have time for anything, neither strolling in Northampton nor pique-niquing by the lake, nor even to write a long letter to Violaine. You submerge us in tales of captivity from the 18th and 19th centuries, every one constructed around the same model: “savages” capture a frail young woman, are subsequently slain by the defenders of civilization who save her, freeing the young woman all the better to enslave her “chez elle.” I’ve chosen, for the oral report which caps the first month of the course, to focus on the cases of Mary Rowlandson and Mary Jemison. The former, a pastor’s wife captured in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1682, penned a first-hand account of her 11 weeks of captivity, the first best-seller in America, reprinted regularly up until 1913. As for Mary Jamison, in 1823 she confided to a young doctor the story of her kidnapping and adoption at the age of 15, in 1753, by the Senecas. The sophomores recount to me with delectation how you grilled one of them for two hours after her presentation, forced another to improvise, grabbing her papers from her hands, the time you cut off a student before she could even finish her introduction, which you judged “cliché-ridden.” Only to execute perfect figure eights a moment later by contradicting themselves in emphatically evoking how you’d already ‘saved their lives,’ a telephone call on a Sunday when they were feeling particularly gloomy, a last-minute excursion when they felt overwhelmed with schoolwork, the little bags of dried fruit.
The morning of my presentation, my classmates urge me on with taps on the shoulder as I approach the lectern. I await your questions without too much trepidation, I know the texts practically by heart. You have but one sole thing to ask me, you say reassuringly:
“Why did these two stories resonate – and why do they still resonate today – so strongly?”
The stunned silence of my fellow students overwhelms me. Nothing about the actual texts, nothing about their authors, the exhaustion from having slept so little for months leaves me drained, it doesn’t help matters that my words come to me in French, the various theses imbibed superimpose themselves one over the other, your own book, “Mercy Mary Patty,” which you detest us citing is the only one which comes to mind, your clear grey eyes stare at me, is this how you reduced Violaine to being little more than a spectator of your affirmations, you lean towards me, am I all right, would I like some cashews? You suggest we break for lunch and leave the room, my classmates comfort me, delighted to count me among the victims, Welcome to the Club, this is typical Neveva.
Many days elapse before I dare respond to your question by e-mail: Perhaps the resonance of these stories owes itself to what their authors suggest: Having learned to be well-behaved and obedient was of no succor to them, this is not how they survived among the Indians.
“Nor at Smith College, for that matter,” is your irrelevant response, with this PS: “Don’t forget that despite their sincerity, these stories were politically exploited by the powers that be for their own ends. They served as the pretexts for undertaking all kinds of punitive actions against the Indians in the name of our besieged civilization. They need to be read with more distance than you seem to have read them.”
One morning during the final week, you find yourself confronted with the first grumblings of a revolt. Mercy, Mary, all right but… when are we going to finally get to Patty? We’ve been talking about her since the very first day, you whisper emphatically, exasperated.
I remained at Smith a little over a quarter. I often had the impression of being immersed in the décor of an idealized novel about an ideal boarding school where no one asks you about your nationality, your sexual orientation, your religion, a happy hermetically-sealed world in which benevolent professors are there to teach without professing. The morning of my arrival, a roll of Lifesavers was left on my doorstep and a postcard bid me welcome to the campus, the following day, on the route leading to the library, a chalk-drawn message on the asphalt pavement celebrated my decision to go back to school; the “Big Sis – Little Sis” rite had begun, each of the newbies would be showered with attention by an upperclasswoman for an entire week. Last month, I was amused by a day dubbed “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question Day,” we were encouraged to ask any sociology professors or students we ran into about any aspect of society, they all wore badges to this effect: “Ask me!” I was present at rituals without taking part in them, like the night, on the eve of finals, on which everyone leaned out of their windows and simultaneously screamed for a whole minute to release their tension and anxiety, after which they all resumed prepping.
At Smith I was a nearly 40-year-old “provisional” student surrounded by young women bearing no resemblance to me when I was their age. They intimidated me, as if it was I who was their little sister, I envied the splendid nonchalance with which they employed the first person singular and the verb “to choose,” I chose to stay and fight. (9)
On “Ivy Day,” standing beside their parents, I applauded these women who were neither my daughters, my sisters, nor my friends, a procession of hundreds of tulle gowns, of satin, and of ribbons exposing plump arms, of rumpled shorts with matching derbies, of tank tops revealing bra straps, they advanced slowly towards us, being careful not to let the chain of laurels which bound them slip off their shoulders.
At Smith, I listened to all the tape recordings of Patricia Hearst from start to finish, poured through forgotten theses from the 1980s, the anarchist club permitted me to consult the student fanzines of the epoch which supported the SLA and were enamored with Tania. In the archives, I unearthed articles from the dailies relating your arrest in April 1969. The announcement that Smith had fired you. The tracts calling for your re-instatement. The photos of a demonstration in solidarity with your cause. A petition from 1995 calling for you to finally be granted the academic honors you had a right to. More recent articles deploring the re-release of “Mercy Mary Patty,” Ms. Neveva should stick to indoctrinating the lesbians of her Communist university. But nothing, nothing at all on your report for the Hearst defense team. I believe I can confirm today that you attended the trial as a spectator.
One day I mentioned your personal involvement in the Hearst trial to another student; she nearly fell out of her chair, why didn’t you talk about the report in your course, it must be fascinating, the young woman suggested that we work together, we could read it faster, dividing the report in two, and eventually include it in our final paper. I hemmed and hawed, maybe it was just a rumor, we should ask you first. Which is exactly what she did at the next class. You didn’t bat an eye, for several instants it seemed to me that you noticed my crimson visage and then, with a shrug of the shoulders, you dismissed the matter as a negligible anecdote – in effect, like dozens of others at the time, you were solicited by the Defense team but it didn’t go any further than that, and if one were to list all your moments of glory, you were also handcuffed on campus centuries ago, does dwelling on the past get us anywhere, no, we need to return to the present.
The night before my departure for France, you called me up. Good evening, it’s Gene Neveva. You offered to drive me to Boston in your car, I must have a lot of luggage, it’ll be better than taking the bus in this heat and besides you have some friends to visit there.
You apologized for the sorry state of your car, empty cookie packages strewn over the upholstery and crumbs on the seats, blanket and parka rolled up into a ball on the back seat, ink-stained class pages stuck under the seats and tracts in the front window. We passed Main Street and the bookstore announcing your appearance the following weekend, such hoopla 40 years after the book’s initial publication, “You’re a celebrity!” You winced, not really, unless being accused by Fox News of “glorifying teen-aged terrorists” is something to brag about. Smith will always be your only fiefdom, you concluded, to which one might add California, for the rest, America has never appreciated questionable territories and you’ve been pointing this out for 40 years.
You indicated the glove compartment overflowing with CDs and were surprised by my choice. Patti Smith, this wasn’t my generation. I responded that “Hey Joe” was one of the soundtracks of my childhood – Violaine’s 33 record that you’d given her – we stopped talking while Patti Smith harangued Tania Hearst.
You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.
You told me about Patricia Hearst’s entrance into the courtroom, hailed by whistling and vociferations, the rows of teenagers standing up brandishing her photo like a weapon, We love you, Tania, we love you. You described Patricia pouring water into her lawyers’ plastic cups as delicately as if she were serving tea. She who might have spent her whole life being served by others.
Her mother clad entirely in black, from her pumps through her purse, in mourning for her ideal daughter. The prosecutor’s opening argument accusing the SLA of being a foreign army at war against the United States. Patricia stammering in front of the jury, moved to tears, that she’d been raped by a member of the SLA. A very short-lived compassion which ended abruptly the moment the prosecutor asked Patricia if the perpetrator might possibly be the same person of whom she’d sketched a loving portrait in a funeral oration, on the last tape. From that point on, the jury had considered her a liar, a manipulator. When in fact both were probably true, as contradictory as this might seem. You confessed your regret that you hadn’t included a chapter expanding on this idea in “Mercy Mary Patty.” The story of a young woman accused of not having said No loudly enough, thus suspected of having given her consent….
You described Patricia’s pallor as the jury entered the courtroom, even before they’d proclaimed the verdict, she’d whispered, “Guilty.” It was so lousy.
The crucial question of whether Patricia had acted of her own free will had been quickly sidelined in favor of an interminable debate of a quasi-religious nature, the taped messages treated like heretical documents. Patricia had not been judged solely for the acts that she’d committed but for having subscribed to the “diabolical” ideology of the SLA, for having denounced a certain America.
As I listened to you I pictured you young and furious, powerless to contradict the simplistic experts from your bench in the audience, yes or no, true or false, good or bad, innocent or guilty. You who’d devoted more than 300 pages to the nuances of irresolute minds, fluctuating identities. In this country, you bitterly concluded while handing me your cigarette so I could light it, we glorify politicians who never change their opinions, it’s even seen as a sign of strength of character, and Patricia had paid the price, she who’d continually responded Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know any more.
I was expecting you to add that you’d also paid the price, but you slapped yourself on the wrist, We’re not in class Gene, stop!
We decided to make a pit-stop in Springfield, which we took advantage of to buy drinks and ice cream. In the coffee-shop, young African-Americans were huddled in front of a t.v. broadcasting in constant replay the declaration of a state of emergency in Baltimore. The eye-witness testimonies succeeded each other on the screen, a vehement policeman, a woman in tears, a story with the inevitable end: an adolescent body covered in a shroud, asphyxiated, beaten, killed. His feet surpassed the stretcher, the shoelaces of his sneakers half untied, the policeman will plead legitimate defense, he’ll get off. We were less than 10 miles from Smith College, with its glossy brochure vaunting how the school welcomed serious young women of all colors, white, Asian, Black, pictured leaning over books or in lab jackets. A commercial for a fiction in which I loved believing, we expostulated on the equality in the fortress behind the high Victorian gates.
I was talking too fast because time was running out, searching in vain for an angle without finding it, you were focusing on the road, I continued, I loved your course but was disappointed that we hadn’t studied Cinque’s (10) riposte to the FBI official who, several days after the kidnapping, convinced that the SLA was made up entirely of Blacks, had insinuated on t.v. that “the Blacks, these people, we know who they are.” For the first time you seemed disconcerted. Many moons ago, you’d been fired from a pseudo-libertaire (11) French establishment for having read this very discourse to your students, I already knew this but I didn’t say anything. We attempted to recite it from memory, each of us taking over when the other forgot the words.
You know me, you’ve always known me, I’m the hunted and feared Negro, you’ve killed hundreds of my people to find me; but I am no longer he one steals from and assassinates […] oh yes, you know us all and we know you […].
We stopped talking. The closed cockpit of the car warped time, I prayed we’d never get to Boston. The rain had been falling for a while but now it blotted out the atmosphere with horizontal lines, a violent tempest, the first summer storm, forcing us to pull up into a parking lot deserted except for a man and his dog. The animal toddled along in the opposite direction of the stick his owner’d just thrown, he hunted without success and finally resigned himself to coming back limping, embarrassed at having failed at his task, the man stroked his back, the emaciated hind paws of the dog trembled, the young man lifted the animal up into his arms, the dog unable to get into the car by himself, he curled up on the back seat, exhausted. I remembered the disoriented look of an ageing Lenny when he’d hurt himself for the first time after jumping from a wall, out of breath and panic-stricken when Violaine and I had rushed over to him, he’d struggled to his feet like one gets up hurriedly to ward off a threat. Will you come back one day to the Southwest of France, I asked, without looking at you directly.
I didn’t have any handkerchiefs in my purse and neither did you, we didn’t even know where to start as the beginning of the story had already taken place and we hadn’t met, or not exactly, we kept interrupting each other, sorry, we needed to resituate the times, your hands perched on the steering wheel were shaking, how did she pronounce it, VIO-LAI-NE, you never knew, you closed your eyes momentarily, voila. Upon arriving at the airport, I sputtered out that I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again and that you’d been right the very first day we met, I’d loved Patricia as an image one can never live up to, I hadn’t chosen anything for years, how to fight against what’s ravaging us, what flag of what SLA to raise, do you even have to rally behind a flag and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on Tania’s?
“And at the end of the day, what was in your report?”
You burst out laughing, as if I’d just said something particularly hilarious, we arrived at the international departures building, you locked me briefly in your arms, more of an accolade than a hug, you didn’t have time to wait around, a horde of freshmen to whom you’d given too many books to read – as if such a thing was possible – were no doubt already whining at your door. Then at the ticket counter as we were about to go our separate ways, you asked me if by any chance I had “Mercy Mary Patty” in my purse but it was already stashed away in my suitcase, we hurriedly unpacked it, hunching over in front of the armed security guards, extracting tee-shirts, underwear, skirts and notebooks. You thumbed through the book and ear-marked pages 50 through 65, voila the report, you seized my hand and grasped it between yours, beware of pat stories and I don’t know if Gene Neveva was referring to Patricia Hearst, Violaine, or me.
There’s a certain grace in being among those who seek to connect the dots, who tirelessly keep their ears peeled to discern the voices of centuries of equivocal missing persons, disseminated over elongated spans of time, which have trouble reaching us. You hadn’t saved Patricia Hearst but you’d completed, without fail, your report, which bore little resemblance to a legal brief.
You wrote it for Mercy Short, she is 17 years old in 1690 and has been sequestered in her bedroom for a week. Around her bedside huddle pastors from neighboring villages and boys her own age, 50 bystanders who don’t take their eyes off her, observing what she eats, the way she talks, her dreams that she has to recount down to the most minute details for the small assemblage, monitoring every one of her words, they sing and chant until daybreak, strengthened by being united against the Devil. Mercy must be saved, she’s unrecognizable since she was rescued, without a doubt her kidnapping has left its mark, she has to get her two-cents’ worth in even when nobody asks her opinion, she has no sense of decency, if we let things go on like this before long she’ll be talking to her boss like he’s her cousin. She calls her father a hypocrite after listening to him pray to God. And the way she dresses, the top button of her frock permanently unbuttoned, it’s not proper! We must save Mercy Short’s soul, bring back the Mercy we all know and love, the adorable Mercy, she in whom, concludes the pastor Cotton Mather in the account he consecrates to her, the “faculties are now in complete disarray and who is exhibiting a freedom in her tone of voice that is absolutely extraordinary and in this respect, disturbing.”
You write for Eunice Williams, she who was baptized Marguerite by her adoptive parents, Mohawks, when they converted to Catholicism. Eunice-Marguerite kidnapped in Deerfield on February 28, 1704 by a troop made up of French soldiers and their Indian allies, the Abenaquis and the Mohawks.
Eunice-Marguerite who one day receives a visit from an old man, he stutters, no doubt from the cold, tears flow from his eyes which he dries off with a hand roughened by frostbite, he’s been searching for her for months, he’s scoured all of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She offers him a cup of tea and invites him to sit down on the warmest bearskin rug, covered with woven blankets. He talks a little bit too loud, detaching each of his words as if she can’t understand him. She doesn’t need to call him Sir, he’s her father. The teenager shakes her head, her father is out there, with her mother. She points her finger at a Mohawk couple who wave back, they’re gathering firewood. The reverend raises his voice, clearly not, he’s her father, he never gave up, sure that he would find her, bloodlines are so strong, from the moment he’d been liberated he’d been searching for her without let-up. And now they’re reunited. The nightmare is over, in a few days, the time it takes to get to Deerfield, Eunice will be safe, nothing can ever happen to her again, John Williams swears it, he’ll make sure of it. Then the girl who no longer goes by the name of Eunice shakes her head firmly, flabbergasted. He’s welcome here. He can stay as long as he likes. She’ll present him to her husband. Show him what he built last month, an ingenious construction of tree branches over which they’d stretched a buffalo skin to protect it from storms. He can rest. Eat. But leave with him, to go where? This is her home, here.
A few months later, the reverend returns. On each of his visits, she listens to him patiently like one might listen to someone afflicted by fever, his discourse won’t brook any interruptions, he captures the young woman’s time, assails her with this first name with which he re-baptizes her, Eunice my Eunice, I recognize you all the same. The sole account of Eunice’s choice is the one published by her father in 1707: “The Redeemed Captive,” it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”
You, you write for Eunice’s descendants who still live in Kahnawake, they tell anyone who asks the story of their grandmother, great-grandmother, great-grand-aunt who refused to be liberated, she was not a prisoner. You write stories without epilogues or revelations, a tightrope walker in the gray zones who looms up when one least expects it, you write a postcard, “Attention: Violaine,” which I receive yesterday, if she consents to budge to Northampton, Violaine will feel right at home in your class, it’s off-limits to adults.
9. In English and French in the original.
10. “Nom de Guerre” of Donald DeFreeze, leader of the SLA.
11. A contemporary French term for non-violent anarchism. I’ve chosen to leave it in the French original here because the most obvious English translations, “anarchist” or “Libertarian,” have respectively more radical and conservative connotations in American English than that intended by the French term.